ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

d20 Hit Point Piles

One of these guys has already taken 7 hit points of damage. Now if I can just remember which one…

I’ve run lots and lots of games where I’ve tracked the individual hit points of every orc on the battle map. Every GM comes up with their own clever methods of remembering which figure took what damage, but in the end it’s a lot of work for little benefit, and it just gets worse the more critters you add and the later at night the game goes.

A simple alternative is the hit point pile: track the total damage done to similar creatures as one big pile. Ignore which particular creature was hit. Just keep adding up the damage, and when the total is enough to kill one, the one that just got hit dies. Set the pile to zero and start over again (excess damage is lost).

There are twenty gnolls and each has 13 hit points. Fred attacks one for 7 damage, then Charlie attacks a different one for 4 damage — that’s 11 damage on the pile so far. Next Anastasia attacks a third gnoll for 6 damage, which kills it even though it had never been attacked before. The GM knocks over the figure Anastasia attacked and sets the damage pile back to 0. Nineteen gnolls to go.

If you have different groups of creatures use separate piles for each one (one pile for the goblins, one for the wolves). For unique creatures or very small groups just track hit points the normal way.

Pig Pile

Because damage is concentrated on a single enemy at a time, opponents die faster when you use hit point piles.

This is less of an issue than it seems, because smart players already tend to gang up on one opponent until it is dead instead of wounding a bunch of different enemies that could still fight back. It’s logical, but unfortunately it smells lame – in the real world a bunch of knights don’t surround one enemy on the battlefield at a time, but without facing rules to penalize you it’s often the smartest choice in d20.

Hit point piles give the players the benefit of ganging up on one guy without embarrassing themselves by actually doing it. Tactical benefit + aesthetically pleasing.

Two Piles Are Better Than One

There are a few potential pitfalls of in-game logic and metagaming:

- An unlucky character could keep hitting the same opponent over and over and again but never take them out because someone else keeps getting a killing blow.

- A lowly court jester can take a stab at a theoretically “fresh” enemy and kill him if other characters have already done damage elsewhere (this only seems strange when you think in terms of hit points, not a real fight).

- If your players are tactical metagamers they may try to do things like have a weak attacker go when they think the total is almost enough for a kill so that a stronger attacker doesn’t waste damage on an “overkill,” but if your players are that motivated to track this kind of thing a simplified system is probably not for you anyway.

The solution? Run two piles at a time instead of one. Decide which of the two piles to add the latest attack to as you prefer (or just alternate) and don’t tell the players. Does it seem like Fred has been beating on that gnoll for a while? Add his attack to the most damaged pile. Did a hobbit just kick someone in the shins? Add it to the undamaged pile, not the pile that’s an inch from death.

Running two or even three piles is still simple and fast, and certainly less overhead than tracking individual hit points for each critter.